Labour has a new Brexit policy: one that is a reversal of the party’s position in the recent General Election and, effectively, a repudiation of the result of the June 2016 referendum.
The policy, unveiled by the shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, advocates staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union during an extended transition period – and perhaps indefinitely.
The move has been embraced enthusiastically by opponents of Brexit, who see it as a way to thwart the EU referendum result. Starmer’s proposal is being discussed as a “soft Brexit” option, but soft Brexit is a sophistry. There is only being in the EU or being outside it, and being a member of the Single Market and the Customs Union means not leaving the EU.
Starmer said that Labour would support full participation in the Single Market and Customs Union during a “transitional period” that could last between two and four years after the end of the Brexit negotiations in March 2019.
This is in contrast to the Conservative government’s position, laid out in these pages by Greg Hands on Friday, according to which the UK will leave the Single Market and the Customs Union at the end of the two year negotiating period and will remain outside both during any transitional period.
Starmer argued that a future Labour government would consider staying in the EU permanently only if it manages to persuade the EU to agree to change its freedom of movement rules. Such a concession from the EU is highly unlikely, but this is an extremely weak caveat that could easily be dropped in future.
So why did Labour, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn called for Article 50 to be triggered immediately on the day after the referendum, U-turn so thoroughly?
Many have interpreted the policy shift as an attempt to distinguish Labour’s Brexit policy from that of the Conservatives.
But if Labour merely wants to distinguish itself from the government, there are other ways it could do so – for example, by working harder to promote the anti-austerity agenda it espoused in the General Election.
Several factors led to this policy about-turn, including a desire to cement the party’s appeal among younger and middle-class voters, who are fast becoming Labour’s main support base. Labour seems to be convinced that it can win the next election, and that this could happen sooner rather than later.
With parliament gearing up to debate the EU withdrawal bill, the Labour party wants to have a clear position around which to rally pro-Remain forces in parliament, including from the government benches. It is hoping to drive a wedge into the Conservative party, and precipitate a crisis that could bring down the government and force another election.
Another calculation behind the U-turn on Single Market membership may be that Labour’s leaders are worried that the UK’s sudden departure could result in a short term economic shock that would put paid to its anti-austerity agenda.
It is difficult otherwise to understand why Corbyn would have taken such a political gamble – one which could undermine the party in its northern strongholds, and which could also jeopardise his own leadership position.
The policy shift exposes Labour to the charge that it campaigned in the recent election under false pretences, and is now reneging on respecting the referendum result. It could give a new lease of life to Ukip, which had seemed to be in retreat, and may also benefit the Conservatives.
Seven in 10 Labour constituencies voted Leave in the referendum: those voters are likely to punish the Labour party if it is seen to have abandoned its promise to honour the Brexit vote.
The move may turn out to be a miscalculation in another respect too. By caving into his opponents on this issue, Corbyn will empower them and weaken his own position.
The Labour leader is also in danger of squandering the one thing for which many voters respect him: his claim to be a politician of principle. He already called this into question when he failed to campaign to leave the EU in 2016, despite having been a lifelong Eurosceptic.
Having committed his party to leaving the Single Market – even sacking members of his front bench for voting in favour of membership in July – Corbyn’s policy U-turn shows him to be an unprincipled pragmatist.
Labour’s aim of sowing division in the Conservative ranks could backfire. The new policy gives political ammunition to Theresa May’s government, which can accuse the opposition of disrespecting democracy.
Whether the Conservatives can make the most of this opportunity is another matter given the disarray in their own ranks on Brexit. However, even the most die-hard pro-Remain Conservatives will not want to risk splitting the party and handing victory to Labour.